Samantha Castrovinci of Durham hadn’t seen the tattoo she had inked onto Soren Johnsen’s upper back for years. It was one of her first tattoos, and the idea that she could rework it was hers as well.
“Some subtle color might be cool,” said Castrovinci, as she examined the faded artwork between Johnsen’s shoulder blades.
“That sounds exciting,” said Johnsen.
“I’m not gonna charge you,” Castrovinci said.
“That’s even more exciting,” replied Johnsen.
Castrovinci, 28, was coming around to the idea of putting the fix on existing tattoos, a sometimes lucrative but perhaps less glamorous service for a tattoo artist. As the owner of The Studio tattoo shop in Old East Durham, the only person Castrovinci had to answer to now was herself.
Johnsen did not hesitate when Castrovinci asked if she could revise her old art.
“It’s an awesome tattoo – it’s just rusty,” Johnsen said.
“It’s heavy-handed,” said Castrovinci, without a hint of irony in her voice. “The lines are either too deep and fuzzy, or too shallow and faded.”
Castrovinci said she had only six months’ worth of tattooing experience when she applied Johnsen’s tattoo, a circle of spear-points with a lizard lounging in its center.
In Castrovinci’s mind, what the tattoo needed now was clarity.
“Enhancing what’s there … adding more detail,” Castrovinci said.
Her first tattoo
Castrovinci was still a teenager when she went to downtown Durham in 2007 to get her first tattoo, a black star on the back of her neck. It was there that Castrovinci learned that the tattoo shop, which catered to younger customers, was looking for an apprentice.
“When opportunities come about, I take them,” Castrovinci said. “It wasn’t the best place to begin, but it got my foot in the door.”
Six months later, Castrovinci was inking the barely legal Johnsen’s back.
“You gotta crawl before you can run,” Johnsen said.
A decade later, inside a tattoo shop that Castrovinci can call her own, she had Johnsen seated face-first in a massage chair, his upper back serving as a canvas to Castrovinci’s ink.
“To me, this is the hardest part: the designing,” Castrovinci said.
She began her rework of the tattoo using a Sharpie pen to draw what looks like a set of crosshairs over the old art, mapping it into pie sections.
“I’m probably going to get rid of this yin-yang thing in here,” Castrovinci said, pointing to the round symbol faintly visible inside the center of the design.
As Castrovinci made small talk with Johnsen, their conversation turned to this past summer’s solar eclipse. Castrovinci’s pen hand hovered over the fuzzy gray image of the yin-yang. She proposes to Johnsen that the symbol be changed into two orbs, one eclipsing the other.
“That’s a fun transformation,” Johnsen said.
Castrovinci has worked as both employee and contractor for tattoo shops around central North Carolina for nearly a decade. Her longest stretch with a shop was five years at Warlock’s in Raleigh. Byron Wallace, Warlock’s owner, said he hired Castrovinci right on the spot – the second time around.
“Sam first came by as a beginner looking for an apprenticeship,” Wallace said. He advised her to come back once she had developed a portfolio. A year later, Castrovinci returned, portfolio in hand, and landed a job.
“She’s a free-hand, custom artist,” Wallace said. “She draws all her work.”
As Castrovinci prepared to tattoo her design changes onto Johnsen’s back, she took a moment to admire her work in pen. She had straightened the direction of one of the spear-points. Sets of lines now projected from all corners of the artwork, giving the design a corona.
“It’s kind of fun (reworking) because it’s kind of an automatic success,” Castrovinci said.
Johnsen said when he first was tattooed by Castrovinci 10 years ago, he was shaking the entire time.
“I used a lot of cuss words,” Johnsen said. “I felt every second of it.”
Johnsen described the tattooing sensation this time around as a subtle vibration transmitted through his rib cage.
“It was so light, so delicate,” Johnsen said. He turned to Castrovinci. “The skill has progressed… skin is not paper.”
Castrovinci handed Johnsen a hand mirror, and he used it in combination with a wall mirror to admire tattoo version 2.
“She’s upgraded me to moon energy,” Johnsen said.
The faded, gray tattoo he last saw two hours ago was now a jet-black face of compass points reaching out in all directions across his back. The tattoo’s center now featured two floating orbs being lassoed by a lizard’s tail.
“Thank you for trusting me,” Castrovinci said to Johnsen. “I want to fix more of my old tattoos.”
Castrovinci said that while she was reworking her old art on Johnsen’s back, she found herself reflecting on both the tattoo then, and the tattoo now.
“You can’t erase your past,” Castrovinci said. “You can change the tattoo. I have the privilege of going back into it and changing it.”
Steve Bydal: email@example.com